PHOENIX — Now the real sprint begins in the race to replace wounded ex-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona's 8th Congressional District.
Unopposed Democrat Ron Barber formally became his party's nominee for the seat following Tuesday's special primary election and Republican Jesse Kelly edged out three GOP opponents to win the chance to face off against Giffords' former aide.
The two now embark on an eight-week race to get voters to support them for the seat in the special June 12 general election.
Expect the gloves to be off.
Barber was first out of the gate Tuesday evening, telling an Associated Press reporter that Kelly has "the wrong priorities" for southern Arizona's middle class families and seniors.
"He supports a radical tax plan that would increase taxes by 23 percent for middle class families. He's said that Medicare should be eliminated and Social Security should be phased out," Barber said. "I am running to rebuild southern Arizona's middle class... I think now the race is engaged."
Kelly said Barber is wrong and his focus is on cutting taxes, creating more jobs by building a stronger economy and lowering gas prices by opening up more federal lands to exploration.
He's proposed a 10-percent flat tax and said "every single American should pay the exact same tax rate."
"I think a majority of the voters like our plans," Kelly said after his win Tuesday night.
Barber hit first on the airwaves, releasing a television ad Wednesday that didn't mention Kelly but highlighted his experience running the state disabilities agency, working as Giffords' district director, running a small business and pledging to protect what he called a disappearing middle class.
His campaign consultant, Rod McLeod, said he was gratified that more than 43,000 voters turned out for the Democratic primary, even though Barber was unopposed. He wouldn't say if the campaign planned to attack Kelly directly.
"We're going to run a civil campaign but we're going to be very clear that there's a strong contrast here," he said. Voters "...look at Ron and they see a solid, responsible guy. And they look at Jesse Kelly and they hear him talk about a lot of irresponsible ideas: eliminating Social Security, phasing it out, dismantling Medicare, abolishing the minimum wage."
Kelly communications director John Ellinwood said Barber isn't offering any new ideas.
"It's sad to see he doesn't have anything positive to talk about, he doesn't have any plan," Ellinwood said. "And Jesse's going to continue to talk ... about the specifics of his plans to grow the economy by lowering taxes, reducing regulations and reduce gas prices by using more American energy, which will also bring jobs back to America."
Kelly defeated three challengers, state Sen. Frank Antenori, retired U.S. Air Force pilot and political newcomer Martha McSally, and Tucson businessman and longtime sports broadcaster Dave Sitton, to win the GOP nomination on Tuesday,.
Kelly is a businessman, former Marine and tea party favorite who nearly unseated Giffords in 2010.
Barber retired as director of Arizona's developmental disabilities agency, then joined Giffords' office. He and his wife also ran a children's toy and clothing store in Tucson for 20 years.
The winner of the June 12 special general election will hold the seat until Giffords' term expires at the end of 2012. The race for the full term for the renumbered District 2 kicks off with an August primary.
Giffords resigned from her seat on Jan. 25, slightly more than a year after she was shot at a constituent meet-and-greet in Tucson. Six people were killed and 13 others were wounded including Barber and Giffords.
The 8th District spans parts of Tucson and its suburbs, some of Pinal and Santa Cruz counties and all of Cochise County.
Jesse Kelly for Congress: http://www.votejessekelly.com
Ron Barber for Congress: http://ronbarberforcongress.com/